My wife and I confess to a guilty pleasure during these homebound times: watching the hit TV series “Outlander,” which is set largely in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for seasons four and five.
Yes, the setting is the Blue Ridge around 1770, and Grandfather Mountain is mentioned by name, but the STARZ time-traveling romantic drama was actually filmed in Scotland.
Scottish lead actor Sam Heughan, who plays Highlander Jamie Fraser on the show, visited Blowing Rock in 2016 at the urging of Diana Gabaldon, author of the best-selling series of “Outlander” books. Heughan said he wanted to see the real inspiration of the fictional Fraser’s Ridge homestead.
Heughan said after the visit, “I went to North Carolina, I visited there, I spent a few days going around various locations, and it just looks the same!”
Matthew B. Roberts, the show’s executive producer, said, “We have our crew, our big studio here [in Scotland], so it was better to base here and remain here. And, believe it or not, Scotland plays for North Carolina quite well.”
I kind of agree with Roberts, except for the oft-viewed vista looking out over Fraser’s Ridge, with its multi-tiered waterfall and river flowing through the valley—inspired by a real panorama in Slovakia, I’ve read—that strikes us natives as completely counterfeit.
In episode three of season four, the show recreated the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, right down to the Scottish music, food, competitions and the moving torchlight ceremony and calling of the clans. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never attended the annual festival at MacRae Meadows, but now my appetite to go has been whetted even further.
I’m afraid that won’t be this July, however, because the board of trustees announced on May 4 that this year’s games have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“Outlander” has amassed a rabid cult following and spawned a few local week-long fan festivals that celebrate the show. The original, “A Gathering on the Ridge,” was founded in 2015 at the Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis. This year’s “novel adventure experience” coincides with the now-cancelled games and is sold out—never mind that pricing starts at $1,875 per person.
The “Gathering” has proven so popular that it’s produced a fall sequel in October at the inn. But this year’s event has also sold all of its minimum $1,825 tickets. Did I mention that “Outlander” has dedicated fans?
Wilkes County has its own festival from Oct. 8-11 this year called “Fraser’s Ridge Homecoming” in the Leatherwood Mountains Resort area of the Ferguson community. Yes, you read that right—there are two “Outlander” gatherings on the exact same dates in 2020, about 27 miles apart.
The annual “Homecoming” is organized by Beth Pittman, who told us here at the newspaper a couple years ago that her goal was to align the focus more on the historical aspects of the “Outlander” series. “Wilkes County is amazing. There is so much history here,” she said earlier.
This year—provided there are no more COVID-19-related disruptions—Pittman is bringing three supporting cast members (the actors who portray Dougal and Colum MacKenzie and Mrs. Fitz of Castle Leoch) to Ferguson for various interactions with fans. Also scheduled are period workshops, live local music, living history encampments and catered meals.
The four-day “Homecoming” costs $932 plus tax, which doesn’t include accommodations or alcoholic beverages. Tent camping at Leatherwood is only $15 a night, making it the cheapest lodging option. So, inclusive pricing starts at roughly $1,000 per person, making it a relative bargain compared to the Valle Crucis shindigs.
I can’t say the wife and I have quite progressed yet to the level of “Homecoming” fandom, but we’re getting there. The series is pure soap opera but fulfilling on many different levels—just the right amount of escapism the doctor ordered for our quarantining.